Chambers, Thomas Jefferson (1802–1865)

By: Margaret S. Henson

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: July 28, 2020

Thomas Jefferson Chambers, lawyer and land speculator, was born in Orange County, Virginia, on April 13, 1802, the youngest of twenty children of Thomas Chambers and the ninth of his second wife, Mary (Gore). His father died in 1815, leaving a small estate of less than $500. Soon after, the widow and her youngest children moved to Mount Sterling, Kentucky, where relatives lived. Chambers attended the academy of Joshua Worley in Georgetown, where he studied Latin, Greek, and the sciences. While teaching school to support himself he trained for the law by clerking for judges Jesse Bledsoe and James Clark in Lexington. Chambers was in debt, and when his mentor Clark declared the state's debtor relief laws unconstitutional in 1823, Chambers left Kentucky for Alabama. He was, however, always able to secure the patronage of influential men and was sponsored for the bar in Alabama by Supreme Court justice Abner S. Lipscomb. There is no evidence that Chambers encountered trouble in Alabama, but by 1826 he left for New Orleans and took passage for Veracruz. He traveled to Mexico City, where he lived with a Mexican family in order to learn the language and customs. For the next few years he supported himself by giving English lessons and translating for businessmen. He became acquainted with Vice Governor Victor Blanco of Coahuila and Texas and moved to Saltillo. With Blanco's influence Chambers became a certified surveyor and in 1829 was named surveyor general of Texas. He and land commissioner Juan Antonio Padilla were to survey claims and issue titles to Texans who had lived on their land before 1827 but remained without deeds.

The pair reached Nacogdoches by February 13, 1830, and Chambers sent out surveyors. In April Padilla's political enemies had him arrested on a bogus murder charge. This ended issuing titles and surveying until his replacement was named. Chambers became the paid agent at the legislature for residents of East Texas. On September 23, 1834, for his activities as surveyor he received eleven leagues of land that he located in Ellis, Navarro, Chambers, Liberty, and Hays counties. Besides their state commissions, Chambers and Padilla were engaged in large-scale land speculation. On February 12, 1830, the state granted them an empresario contract to settle 800 families in northern Texas. Unfortunately the land assigned to them lay outside of Texas, and nothing was done with the contract. Chambers participated in a shady though not illegal purchase of land from Vincent Padilla, who had bought an unlocated eleven-league grant from the state in 1829 in accordance with the state law allowing native Mexicans to buy Texas tracts. On March 3, 1830, Vincent asked his kinsman, the land commissioner, to issue a title. A five-league tract was surveyed and title issued on March 28, 1830, to land stretching around Turtle Bay and down to Double Bayou in what is now Chambers County. Chambers bought the tract on June 23, 1830, and this purchase made him very unpopular in the area among settlers, some of whom had come as early as 1824.

Seeing the potential of Texas whetted his ambition. In Saltillo in the summer of 1830 he became a naturalized Mexican citizen with a special assurance from influential men that he would be given a bar examination and permission to practice law. But he did not receive a license until 1834 and was the only foreigner to hold one. During the Anahuac disturbances Chambers, with ties to the government, tried to stop the rebels and was accused of being a Tory. His enemies hanged him in effigy in Brazoria in July, and, his pride hurt, he published a pamphlet the following year defending his actions. One month after securing his license to practice law the legislature named him assessor general (state attorney) for Texas, a position he kept for only two months before resigning on May 7, 1834, without ever leaving Saltillo. In 1834 he and others worked to reform the judicial system to make it more responsive to Texas needs. One of the changes was the Chambers Jury Law, which provided for a jury of twelve in Texas and a verdict determined by a majority of eight. The legislature mandated a Texas supreme court on April 17, and two months later the governor named Chambers chief justice. He remained in office one year and five months but never presided over a court. By law he was to receive $3,000 a year, payable in land at the rate of $100 a league. He claimed a salary based on thirty leagues but located some claims on top of others. He located only thirteen of his leagues before the land offices were closed by the Texas Revolution.

In the fall of 1835 Chambers's toryish support of the authorities caused the General Council to denounce him. But after the Texas victory at Gonzales, he acquiesced in steps toward revolution. He did not join the attack against San Antonio. In January he asked the council for the rank of major general in return for raising and equipping 1,145 volunteers, the "Army of Reserve," in the United States to be marched to Texas by May 15. He intended to use his own credit in the amount of $10,000, which would be repaid by Texas. He left for Kentucky on February 23 via Nacogdoches. Though he did not return until June 1837, he sent some troops, not the 1,915 he claimed, to Texas after the battle of San Jacinto. His accounts totaling $23,621 were approved, but they were not paid because there was no money in the treasury. For service as major general he applied for a bounty of 1,280 acres, which he received in 1846.

Chambers became a founding member of the Texas Philosophical Society on December 5, 1837, and made an unsuccessful bid for the Texas Senate in 1838. He retired in 1839 to his house at Round Point, below Anahuac. He changed the name of that town to Chambersia and hired an agent to sell city lots, actions that antagonized old residents. He went to the United States to raise money by selling some of his land and left a nephew in charge of his local business. He then returned unsuccessful in May 1842 and discovered that his entire Padilla tract had been bought from the sheriff for back taxes by John O'Brian, who was living at Round Point. When the local court decided against Chambers, he ambushed and killed O'Brian. The Liberty court did not indict him, however, and he regained possession of the house. O'Brian's widow pursued the matter to the state Supreme Court, where she won in 1855. During this same time Chambers was in litigation with Charles Willcox, who claimed the town of Anahuac; the Texas high court decided in favor of Willcox in 1862. Chambers was also involved in numerous other suits over his various land claims.

After annexation Chambers tried to reenter politics but failed to beat incumbent William Fields in the election for the state legislature in 1849; in 1851 and 1853 he was defeated for the governorship. He received a charter for the Chambers Terraqueous Transportation Company in 1854. This company was to have constructed 4,000 miles of road and to have had a right-of-way 200 feet wide over land, rivers, lakes, and bays, for an amphibious vehicle. The unsuccessful machine was never put into operation.

Chambers County became a separate county in 1858 with the general's nephew, William Morton Chambers, as county judge. The pair represented the county in the Secession Convention in 1861. Chambers lost the gubernatorial race to Francis R. Lubbock in the fall of 1861. He allowed the Confederates to place a battery on his property in Anahuac to guard the mouth of the Trinity, including his own wharf. A company arrived in late 1862 to man the cannon at Fort Chambersia. Seeking a command, Chambers went to Richmond in 1862 but was unable to raise the required number of men. Instead, he became a volunteer aide to an officer in Hood's Texas Brigade and received a minor wound during the Seven Days' battles. He remained in Richmond with the futile suit that he be made a general to defend the Texas coast instead of John B. Magruder, then returned home in 1863 and again ran unsuccessfully for governor.

Chambers had married Annie Chubb on November 20, 1851; the couple had two daughters. He built a fine house on the bluff in Anahuac, one section of which still stood in 1990. On the night of March 15, 1865, the family was gathered in an upstairs parlor when an assassin fired a shotgun through the open window and killed Chambers. Though nobody was arrested, local people believed that Albert V. Willcox did it. The general was buried near his home. The next year his wife moved his body to the Galveston Episcopal Cemetery, and Charles Willcox bought Chambers's wharf, warehouse, and home from the widow. In 1925 the Texas legislature appropriated $20,000 to pay Chambers's descendants for his controversial claim to the site of the Capitol and other land in Austin.

William Chambers, Sketch of the Life of General T. J. Chambers of Texas (Galveston: Galveston News Book and Job Office, 1853). Llerena B. Friend, The Life of Thomas Jefferson Chambers (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1928). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Lawyers
  • General Law
  • Exploration
  • Surveyors and Cartographers
  • Politics and Government
  • Judges
  • Military
  • Confederate Military
Time Periods:
  • Mexican Texas
  • Civil War
  • Texas Revolution
  • Republic of Texas
  • Antebellum Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Margaret S. Henson, “Chambers, Thomas Jefferson,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 28, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

July 28, 2020

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